The BBC Wildlife Magazine put together a panel of judges to name greatest zoological discoveries of all time. OK, its an opinion piece by a couple of knowledgeable folks and is not in any way a definitive scientific ranking, but then any such list can only ever be subjective, after all, how do you ever come up with a precise definition for “greatest” that everybody can agree upon. For some, it may simply be the coolest, for others it might include the discoveries that radically altered our understanding, or perhaps it could simply be those that had the greatest impact upon the public understanding. Nope, it is not a serious list, but rather a bit of reflective fun that can be used to generate some friendly chatter as folks debate what should or should not be in such a list.
So here is their list. Are these the items you would include? What would you leave out and what has been missed that needs to be here in the top 10 list:
10) Tool use by chimps
In 1960, Jane Goodall discovered that chimps in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania stripped leaves from twigs and inserted them into termite mounts to fish for grubs. The discovery challenged anthropologists’ description of humankind as “man the toolmaker”.
9) Symbiosis in coral
What we call coral is the hard shells of animals called polyps. But these marine creatures would die were it not for a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesising algae called zooxanthellae. The algae take up residence inside the polyps, trading the products of photosynthesis for a safe haven.
8) How the giant squid hunts
The giant squid is the largest invertebrate on the planet, but lives at such inaccessible depths that little was known of its behaviour in the wild. In 2004, Japanese scientists Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori lowered a bait-laden video camera 900 metres under the sea and snapped around 50 images of the beast in action. The footage showed the squid lunging, tentacles first, out of the gloom.
7) Migration routes
Modern tagging techniques have provided researchers with detailed knowledge of where birds migrate to with the change of the seasons, but for thousands of years their whereabouts was shrouded in mystery. Outlandish speculations ranged from the birds hibernating at the bottom of ponds, flapping up to the moon, or simply staying put but morphing into new species.
6) Mendelian inheritance
It took the patience and perseverance of Gregor Mendel, a 19th century monk, to discover that traits were passed on from one generation to the next. Mendel, who grew thousands of pea plants and painstakingly observed their inherited characteristics, showed that each new generation received “elements” from both of its parents, and that some were recessive and others dominant, thereby laying the foundations of genetic inheritance.
5) Death of the dodo
The extinction of the dodo stands as the most striking example of the human impact on wildlife. The last of its kind were alive in the late 17th or early 18th century.
4) Hydrothermal vents
The discovery of marine creatures living around geothermally heated water that gushed from cracks in the seabed overturned the notion that sunlight sustained all life on Earth.
The process by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen underpins most of life on Earth. It is hard to credit any one researcher with the discovery, though key findings were made by the Dutchman Jan Ingenhousz in 1779, who revealed the crucial role of sunlight in driving the process.
2) Microscopic life
The 17th century Dutch scientist Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek made some of the best microscopes of his time, using them to discover microorganisms, or “animalcules”. His work led to dramatic re-evaluations of the causes of disease and improvements in hygiene.
1) Transitional species
The most impressive breakthough of all, according to the judges, was the discovery of the fossilised remains of Archaeopteryx, a creature that shares some features with ancient reptiles and others with modern birds. The transitional species – often misleadingly called a missing link – lived around 150 million years ago and had wings and feathers, but also claws, teeth and a long, bony tail. More than any other discovery, Archaeopteryx helped drive the idea of evolution into the public consciousness.
Well, I did warn you it was a very subjective list, an immediate reaction might be, “Where is Lucy?”, “What about a T-Rex that is so beloved by many?”, or a thousand other similar questions? But it does not really matter of course, instead it is best to stand back and marvel at the list, but at the same time to also ponder the thought that it only scratches the surface because there is so much more out there that is just as amazing if not more so.
Ian Sample blogged about it on the Guardian yesterday, to read that you can click here.